All of us speak at least one mother tongue — a language spoken since early childhood, while growing up. The mother language of a child is part of that child’s personal, social and cultural identity.
In 1948, Pakistan government declared Urdu to be the sole national language of Pakistan, even though Bengali or Bangla was spoken by the majority of the people in Pakistan, combining East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and West Pakistan (currently known as Pakistan). The people of East Pakistan protested as their mother language was Bangla. To demolish the protest, the Pakistani government outlawed any public meeting and rally. The students of Dhaka University arranged massive rallies and meetings. On Feb 21, 1952, police opened fire on rallies, Abdus Salam, Abul Barkat, Rafiq Uddin Ahmed Abdul Jabbar, and Shaifur Rahman died, with hundreds of others injured. This was a rare incident in history, where people sacrificed their lives for their mother language. Salute to those martyrs who laid down their life for their mother language—Bangla on Feb 21, 1952.
The UN General Assembly welcomed the proclamation of the day as International Mother Language Day in resolution of 2002. International Mother Language Day recognizes that languages and multilingualism can advance inclusion, and the Sustainable Development Goals’ focus on leaving no one behind.
Languages, with their complex implications for identity, communication, social integration, education and development, are of strategic importance for people and planet. Yet, due to globalization processes, they are increasingly under threat, or disappearing altogether. When languages fade, so does the world’s rich tapestry of cultural diversity. Opportunities, traditions, memory, unique modes of thinking and expression — valuable resources for ensuring a better future — are also lost.
Every two weeks a language disappears taking with it an entire cultural and intellectual heritage. At least 43% of the estimated 6000 languages spoken in the world are endangered. Only a few hundred languages have genuinely been given a place in education systems and the public domain, and less than a hundred are used in the digital world.
Languages are disappearing: a worldwide shared interest and commitment is needed to help them survive. Languages disappear when their speakers do! This can happen due to internal factors, such as when a community has a negative attitude towards its own language and does not maintain or protect it from extinction, or due to external factors, such as when a government pursues a policy for a ‘lingua franca’.
Many other factors, such as migration, urbanization, globalization and the increasing worldwide spread of new technology, can have an adverse effect on language diversity, especially when traditional ways of life are threatened. At the same time, they can also help to protect, spread and preserve languages.
The death of Boa and Boro in November 2009 and January 2010, the last surviving speakers of two Great Andamanese languages, Khora and Bo, has resulted in the extermination of their unique tribes on the islands. Dr. Anvita Abbi, professor of linguistics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi has compiled a ‘Dictionary of Great Andamanese Language’. The lexicon follows Abbi’s five-year research in the Andaman and Nicobar islands. It documents the present form of the language, drawing its resources from four Andamanese languages, two of which — Khora and Bo — recently become extinct. In her effort to preserve the language, Abbi has reconstructed the entire grammar of the language and also come out with a pictorial version for children.
If outsiders helped wipe out the Great Andamanese, they are also helping to record their voices. Dr. Abbi’s dictionary project includes an audio CD. “If you click on a word or phrase, you can hear Boa’s voice saying it…You can hear her songs.”
Multilingual and multicultural societies exist through their languages which transmit and preserve traditional knowledge and cultures in a sustainable way. Let us all celebrate today the International Mother Language Day and promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism every day.